WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans are expressing doubt that President Bush's plan for personal accounts (search) in Social Security can win approval, saying lawmakers fear the political consequences of voting major change to the popular retirement program.
"Politically speaking, right now it's probably not doable," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Thursday, citing lack of Democratic support.
"We should take this year to study the issue and come up with solutions," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She said there was no consensus for action now and that she had not made up her own mind.
Her Maine colleague, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, has said outright that she opposes diverting the program's taxes to pay for personal accounts. Snowe serves on the Senate Finance Committee that would handle any Social Security legislation, making the task before Republicans more daunting.
Not a single Senate Democrat has endorsed Bush's proposal.
That stands in stark contrast to legislation cutting taxes, setting new standards in education and adding prescription drugs to Medicare (search). In each of these cases, the president had at least one prominent Democrat on board early.
Under Senate rules, supporters would need 60 votes for their plan if Democrats try to block it. That means proponents would have to persuade at least a few Democrats to join them if the plan is to become law.
That was partly the reason behind a two-day tour to five states that Bush began Thursday to sell his Social Security program. Each state is represented in the Senate by at least one Democrat who GOP strategists believe might back the president's proposal.
"Now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers," Bush said in Fargo, N.D.
Bush wants to let workers divert up to two-thirds of their Social Security taxes into private accounts that they could invest in stocks and bonds. At the same time, the guaranteed benefit would be cut, though by how much is not clear.
Many Democrats favor personal accounts, but want them in addition to benefits paid by Social Security.
Bush's proposal is also stirring worry in the House, where Republicans have often fallen in behind his programs.
"I've talked to some of my colleagues and they're panic-stricken," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who said he welcomes a serious debate over the sweeping changes Bush outlined in his State of the Union address Wednesday.
Two House Republicans with years of expertise on Social Security offered an alternate plan, saying the Bush proposal was too risky politically. They suggested bolstering the program with money from general revenues rather than the payroll tax.
"I think politically it's the most salable. It's not going to scare anybody," said Florida Rep. Clay Shaw, who for six years was chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. "It does preserve Social Security as it is today. If we're going to attract some Democrats, that's the way to go."
The subcommittee's current chairman, GOP Rep. James McCrery of Louisiana, said taking money out of the existing Social Security system for private accounts gives a powerful argument to the plan's opponents, including the 35 million-member AARP, which represents older Americans.
"The AARP and the Democrats think if you divert some money from the trust fund," the existing program will be undermined, McCrery said. "That is true on its face. It does decrease the level of the trust fund. Politically, that's going to be a very strong tool that (opponents) can use to defeat a plan."
McCrery and Shaw said in separate interviews that, like Bush, they want to create personal accounts. But they said they favor paying for them with general revenue, which probably would mean borrowing the money.
In that case, they said, taxes collected for Social Security would be left alone to pay for traditional program benefits.
Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, acknowledged the dissent over Bush's plan but said it should diminish as members of Congress learn more.
"We have a lot of work to do, not just among the American people, but in our own caucus," said Santorum, R-Pa.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who serves in the House leadership, appeared less worried. He said he left a GOP retreat last week convinced members were "enthusiastic about taking on a challenge and giving it a good honest effort."